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Opinion: Government needs to take better care of ill, injured soldiers

Government needs to take better care of ill, injured soldiers

By GEORGE L. ZIMMERMAN |

Having served in the Canadian Armed Forces as a military chaplain for 30 years it has been hard not to notice a parade of media stories about questionable decisions by senior military officers regarding personnel.

Many Canadians have been hurt by the sacrifice required to serve in harm’s way during Canada’s longest-lasting expedition in Afghanistan.

Providing the best support to those who served is policy of the Government of Canada, and yet there is evidence that there may be gaps in the implementation of that policy.

A survey of court decisions and media reports shows decisions taken that have adversely affected Canadian veterans, serving members, and their families. These may be indications of a pattern of decision-making that lacks prudent, complete research and is short-sighted.

Not only have there been multiple examples of questionable judgment, there is an alarming trend indicating that the internal grievance mechanisms are not well-trusted by military members. This has meant that more grievances are being taken to the judiciary and the media. If CAF members and their families no longer trust the official grievance systems, there could be serious problems. Canada has seen this kind of problem before.

Protest actions by non-commissioned members of the RCN in 1949 on four HMC ships led to a report by rear admiral E.R. Mainguy, et al. (www.navalandmilitarymuseum.org). The Mainguy Report led to strong improvements in leadership, the handling of grievances, and leadership training.

The military ombudsman reported that the grievance system is such that it takes years to resolve grievances related to relocation moving claims, placing CAF families in stressful financial situations. This is no surprise to senior military officers. Despite theoretical effectiveness, the lengthy time lines, and cumbersome processes, indicate a broken redress of grievance system biased in favour of the military. This opinion was well-articulated in The Hill Times (Nov. 16, 2009), by retired Colonel Michel Drapeau.

I came to the same conclusion, reluctantly, after experiencing the grievance system first-hand.

In my case, after more than four years of working with the “redress of grievance” system, I had to resort to the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal for justice (Federal Court of Appeal: Commander George Leonard Zimmerman vs. the Attorney General of Canada, Feb. 4, 2011, number A-94-10). This was difficult as it felt disloyal to an organization I had served for nearly four decades.

But my experience was not an isolated incident. There has been a steady stream of short-sighted and poorly-researched, if not indefensible, decisions that have adversely affected the lives of many who serve and their families.

A recent example was reported in The Ottawa Citizen, on April 22, 2013. Military members were required to pay back danger pay already issued to soldiers now serving in Afghanistan. The media became the voice of grieved service members, who, according to the Citizen, made their grievance publicly known anonymously. This action suggests a lack of confidence in military leadership to receive their complaints in a fair and timely manner.

Last week’s drama surrounding Cpl. Glen Kirkland is a clear example of poor judgment within the military; it also indicates that the internal mechanisms of grievance are not well-trusted.

The public inquiry into Cpl. Stuart Langridge’s suicide by a variety of military offices such as Canadian Forces National Investigation Service brought out some very troubling concerns about leaders’ decisions.

Similar leadership issues were seen by the Federal Court in the class action suit Dennis Manuge vs. Her Majesty the Queen (May 1, 2012). The Federal Court found that it was an error for the military to claw back pension benefits from disabled veterans who were also beneficiaries of an insurance benefit. If it were that evident to the court, how is it that the military leaders did not exercise reasoned judgment with the same conclusion before those members had to resort to the courts?

In its Sept. 25, 2012 edition, The Ottawa Citizen reported that the military tried to advise the CF ombudsman that his finding in favour of a master corporal suffering from post traumatic stress disorder was outside his mandate. This was particularly troubling as the CF Ombudsman’s Office must be and must be seen as trustworthy and objective. This case was also illustrative of a soldier whose voice was heard only through the media (Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 23, 2012). The primary, astounding issue in the media reports was an apparent overpayment of a mere $500. In this case, after the headlines, the defence minister intervened.

In the spring of 2012, a desperate father was motivated to take his son, a military member with suicide ideation, outside the military to place him in a treatment program for PTSD. Other dissatisfied soldiers complained of feeling abandoned after admitting they were suffering from stress disorders. Another story of a “four-tour” soldier and his family trying desperately to get help for his post-tour psychological problems ended in tragedy: Master Cpl. Charles Matiru killed himself in January. The Auditor General (Report Fall 2012 chapter 4) showed much work remains to better support the people with stress injuries as they attempt to transition to civilian lives.

The recent CPAC broadcast Homecoming: Casualties of War reported that the New Veterans Charter has significant weakness, apparently leaving the modern veteran with less support than veterans of previous conflicts. The “Equitas” organization has been established to challenge, through the courts, certain aspects of the New Veterans Charter. If their numbers are correct, would it not be optimum leadership should the DND and Department of Veterans’ Affairs work together to reconsider without forcing these veterans into the stress and costs of court actions? Veterans having to resort to the media and the courts for justice from the organizations designed for their support amounts to a betrayal of the trust they have placed in their country.

While these cited events are known publicly, one has to wonder how many others have been badly affected by decisions of military leaders and remained silent. Military members are loathe to call for an accounting outside the military. Already adversely affected by poor judgment, their issues become exponentially distressing when the internal military’s redress mechanisms fail to support legitimate concerns. This serves not only to preclude justice and timely corrective action, but also leaves members demoralized and distrustful of their leaders.

The leaders in the profession of arms, having the mandate to manage violence in defence of Canada, are under an obligation to show leadership that is commensurate with that responsibility. Without equivocation, it is well-known that Canadian military leaders are highly-professional, dedicated, honourable Canadians, who make their own sacrifices in the discharge of their duties.

However, they are under the significant stresses of military operations and have responsibility for thousands of serving members, all the while dealing with major pressures of current fiscal restraints and government bureaucratic expectations. These stories may be an indication that something is systemically wrong. There may be re-emerging echoes of an old weakness noted in the Mainguy Report: “During our discussion with headquarters’ staff at Ottawa, we were impressed by the fact that the tri-service policy with its multiplicity of committees and its mass of “paper work” had placed an undue burden upon the small number of Naval officers available. Practically every one of them seemed to be overburdened with detail and were not left enough time to shape policy, which should be their first main function and to see that the policy was carried out, which should be their second main function.”

Action should be taken either by outside study, internal reflection, or both, to identify all sources of this apparent pattern of questionable judgments and take corrective steps. Furthermore, action continues to be required to ensure the grievance mechanisms have the confidence of serving members. This would be in the long-term, best interests of the Canadian Armed Forces, their veterans, serving members, and families. At the very least, it would clearly demonstrate that Canada does not condone any betrayal of trust for those who serve her in uniform with unlimited loyalty and liability.

Retired naval captain George Zimmerman served in the Canadian Armed Forces from 1972 to 2010. He has served as a reserve naval officer and then, for 30 years, as a Regular Force chaplain. He was part of the original team that set up the military care centers for PTSD. A Presbyterian minister, Reverend Zimmerman is currently serving St. David and St. Martin Church in Ottawa, Ont. He was the chaplain at Royal Roads in the 1980s.

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE HILL TIMES